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March 1, 2024



I don’t even know why I’m sending you this email, but here goes. My little cousin passed away nearly four years ago — he was just seven. My sister passed away 12 years ago, and she was just 34. Whenever I see birthday cards with ‘sister’ written on them, it always gives me a jolt. It makes me feel lonely and separate from the world, like there’s a sheet between me and everyone and I just see impressions of people, not the people themselves. I tried to talk to my aunt about it when my cousin (her son) died, and she told me that it was senseless to be still grieving for my sister — that it was more than a decade ago now and I should just get over it. I’m really angry with my aunt — I find it hard to forgive her. Christmas brings these thoughts back up because I know I’ll see her. Am I wrong to feel so angry? Sara, by email

It does not matter if it was last year or twelve years ago, the death of someone close to you skyrockets you out of your life in such a way that you know you will never land back down in the same way again.

Loss is a deeply personal experience. There are no parameters, no ‘how to grieve more rapidly’ handbooks, no prescribed strategies that will speed up the healing. No apps to pull you out the other side, bruised but philosophical and ready to take on life’s complexities once again.

Did you grieve your sister when she died? What I mean is, did you let yourself go down into the trenches of her loss? Did you wade through the murky depths and was your heart rendered raw from the pain? Or did you find yourself fading backwards into a dissociative state, a kind of ‘in-between world’ where the pain existed but not quite as intense, protected somehow by numbness and a disconnection from others?

Our feelings are our compass. They don’t accurately predict the future but they do they do let us know something is off, that is their primary function. We are not at all wrong, either to find ourselves angry, or to still be grieving years later, but there is almost certainly something holding us back from grieving fully if we are stuck in a world of apathy, where nothing still feels quite real or worthy.

Any remarks telling us that it’s ‘senseless’ to still be grieving and that we should simply just ‘get over it’ feel like a slap in the face from people we might otherwise believe would be able to understand. Calling it ‘senseless’ also oddly suggests that you committed to this grief somehow mistakenly thinking it was the way forward. In the context of your aunt losing her son, it is possible that she is defending against the fear associated with learning that you, 12 years on, are still dealing with a depth of grief that she may be battling with and yearning to resolve. In an attempt protect herself and create more positive and hopeful feelings about her future, she unfortunately invalidates and diminishes yours.

I don’t know what the circumstances were surrounding your sister?s death, but complicated or unresolved grief can arise from psychological trauma associated with a loss. Who was there for you in the aftermath? Did you have enough opportunities to cry, to scream, to vent your sorrow, to rage – was there anyone there to hold you through the pain? Unresolved grief or trauma, though psychological, locates itself in our bodies, and such trauma becomes more likely if we did not have someone to turn to, someone who kindly allowed us to repeat ourselves relentlessly throughout our early pain and disbelief.

Unresolved grief has the capacity to de-press our vitality, energy, our enthusiasm for living. It smashes our sense of security and it exposes us for all of our fragility and vulnerability. And what is one way of feeling secure in the midst of insecurity and heartbreak? Pulling away and withdrawing from that which could expose or hurt us further. We can unconsciously enact an emotional withdrawal as we barricade ourselves against the unpredictability of life; we are physically present but we are psychologically absent. It is this that further isolates us and keeps us separated from those who can love us. But inherent in meaningfully connecting with others, is the risk of loss. So we withdraw to the emotional safety of numbness or disconnection. And it is within this ‘in-between world’, that you might be residing dear Sara.

You seem stuck in a space behind a sheet, a pane of glass, when on the other side, the world keeps turning. Only you can?t seem to get on board.
The question is what are you holding onto in this world behind the glass? Do you feel closer to your sister there? And does it feel like you’re leaving her behind if you move forward? If you connect with those on the other side of the glass?

I want to recommend two things. The first thing is that I want you to write a letter to your sister. In it, I want you to tell her what it was like for you when she died. Tell her how you felt. Tell her about your anger, your sorrow, your desperation, and how these feeling persist. Tell her too, all the ways in which you looked up to her, and all the ways in which you admired her and in which she infuriated you, whatever is true. And above all, tell her all the ways in which you haven’t been able to let her go and why.

The second thing I would like you to consider is some sessions of therapy to help you to fully process your grief and its related trauma. Your sister will always exist in your mind, in your memory and your thoughts. Therapy doesn’t extinguish this – your memories are your gifts, your precious connections. No-one can take them from you. But therapy can help you to step out from behind the glass and begin to feel deeply again in a way that connects you to your pain. But as a direct consequence, enables you to fill the space carved from that pain, with equal amounts of joy.